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Barry Trotz's bold gamble paying off for Capitals

Coach's decision to move Alex Ovechkin to third line has helped Washington reach Game 7 against Penguins

by Tom Gulitti @TomGulittiNHL / NHL.com Staff Writer

PITTSBURGH -- Think about the decision Washington Capitals coach Barry Trotz had to make.

With his team trailing the Pittsburgh Penguins 3-1 in the Eastern Conference Second Round and on the verge of yet another disaster in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, Trotz met with his assistants on Thursday and came to this conclusion: Alex Ovechkin, the Capitals forward and captain, the face of the franchise and the most prolific goal scorer of his generation, was being moved down from the first line to the third.

Not only that, Ovechkin would be replaced on the Capitals top line with 22-year-old Andre Burakovsky, who had scored three goals in 33 career playoff games and none this season.

Some might have thought it was a panic move (hand raised here), but something interesting has happened on the way to what was shaping up to be one of the biggest postseason disappointments in Capitals history.

It worked.

 

[RELATED: Complete Capitals-Penguins series coverage]

 

With Burakovsky scoring three goals and Ovechkin accepting his reduced role and also scoring a goal, the Capitals won two in a row and forced a Game 7 against the Penguins at Verizon Center on Wednesday (7:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports).

"Sometimes you have to try because if you don't try then you may regret it in the end," Trotz said during a conference call on Tuesday. "I'd rather try to do something than regret something that I should have done maybe before."

Of course, if the Capitals lose on Wednesday, the narrative won't be about the Ovechkin move and that they took the Penguins to a Game 7. It will be that they again couldn't get out of the second round after winning the Presidents' Trophy.

But if the Capitals can dethrone the defending Stanley Cup champions and exorcise the Penguins demons that have long haunted them (1-8 in playoff series), it would be one of the most significant victories in their history and the biggest accomplishment of Trotz's coaching career.

Video: PIT@WSH, Gm5: Ovechkin strikes on second effort

They'd have to win another two rounds to achieve their goal of winning the Stanley Cup, but for a team that hasn't been to an Eastern Conference Final since 1998 and a coach who has never been beyond the second round in his 18 seasons in the NHL, a tremendous weight will be lifted.

Trotz, 54, ranks sixth in NHL history with 713 regular-season wins behind Scotty Bowman (1,244), Joel Quenneville (851), Al Arbour (782), Ken Hitchcock (781) and Lindy Ruff (736). Of the five coaches ahead of Trotz, only Ruff hasn't won the Stanley Cup, and he reached a Stanley Cup Final with the Buffalo Sabres in 1999.

The Nashville Predators, who Trotz coached for their first 15 seasons, have reached the Western Conference Final for the first time in their history. Trotz said seeing that gave him "a lot of pride" after helping build the Predators from scratch as an expansion team.

"I'm so happy that they broke through and got to the conference final," Trotz said.

Now Trotz has a chance to break through, too.

Pittsburgh's Mike Sullivan outcoached him with some of the matchups in winning the first two games of the series. And Trotz's decision to pull goaltender Braden Holtby, the reigning Vezina Trophy winner and a finalist against this season, with the Capitals trailing 3-1 after the second period of Game 2 seemed unwarranted.

Since then, the Capitals have eliminated many of the mental mistakes that were plaguing them. They also made some adjustments with their neutral-zone play to cut down on the number of counterattack chances the Penguins were getting and slow their speedy forwards.

Video: Recapping Game 6 of the Capitals and Penguins

But Trotz stuck his neck on the line when he posted the new line combinations in the dressing room before practice on Friday.

"When you get into a playoff [series], you have to make decisions based on what you feel," Trotz said, "and we weren't getting enough offense with having everything on two lines for the most part, and the bottom part of the lineup was a little bit dry. We had been losing the series and if we continued down that path, then maybe we don't have that opportunity."

As a third line, Burakovsky, Lars Eller and Tom Wilson were creating scoring chances, but weren't finishing. Putting Ovechkin with Eller and Wilson gave them a finisher as well as another player who likes playing physical.

Putting Burakovsky with Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie added some speed to a line that had gone stale and didn't play well in a 3-2 loss in Game 4.

Burakovsky had been missing the net on his scoring chances. Now he's hitting the net and the puck is going in.

He had a goal and an assist in the Capitals' 4-2 win in Game 5 on Saturday and scored twice in a 5-2 win in Game 6 on Monday.

The importance of Ovechkin in this cannot be overstated. In the past, the 31-year-old left wing was labeled by some as selfish, but he has done everything Trotz has asked of him this season without complaint. 

Without prompting, he pointed the finger of blame at himself after playing poorly in Game 4. Then, he accepted being dropped to the third line, just as he accepted Trotz cutting his ice time during the regular season.

"You have to worry about everybody else first to be a good captain, and Alex is doing that," Trotz said. "He's worrying about everybody else first. You can say he's checking his ego or whatever, but he just wants to win with that group and he'll do whatever is asked to win with that group and that's a strong message. That's one of the strongest messages a captain can make to his teammates is that whatever is asked of him he'll do for the betterment of the group."

And, considering the circumstances, Trotz couldn't have asked for more.

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